This article is not meant to trash the athletes and their incredible abilities. However, it’s just hard for me to figure out how world class, Olympic level athletes could be so bad at something that is an integral part of their sport. Some of our triathlete readers might not like that statement, but most of the triathletes I know would not argue with it.
Before the hate mail starts to flow, I want to point out that a significant part of my coaching business is dedicated to working with triathletes to help them improve their cycling. In fact, most of my observations in this article come from the questions that my triathlete clients have asked me and the deficiencies I have detected in the riding and training of even some of my most experienced riders.
So as I was sitting there watching the TV and ranting to my wife (who has done an incredible job over the years of learning to tune me out while I am ranting about something I see on TV) about the mistakes these world class athletes were making, it occured to me that there is actually a great opportunity here.
I highly recommend watching a lot of good bike racing. Universal Sports has the Giro and the Vuelta and a few of the classics, and I encourage all my riders to watch it as often as possible. Not only will they learn a lot about race tactics, but many studies have shown a link between watching great athletic performances and the development of muscle memory in the viewer.
However, many of the tactics you see on TV are not applicable to racing at the club level. In addition, these pros execute their strategies so flawlessly that it is hard to really dissect the process of execution.
So there are plenty of opportunities to watch good bike racing to figure out what you should do but here is also the equally important option of watching bad bike racing in order to learn what not to do.
The truth is, while many cyclists have a superiority complex over their triathlete brethren, we all make the same mistakes. These are the top 5 errors that both triathletes and beginning bike racers make and what to do about them.
I sometimes watch the draft legal triathlons to just to see the mishaps. I don’t like to see people getting hurt, but it’s fascinating to see the crash as it develops. With a little practice you develop an eye for these things. I can spot most crashes about 3 seconds before they happen. I see a rider crossing wheels, riding on the white paint of a wet road or taking a bad line through a turn. I know exactly what is about to happen and how it will happen before it happens.
Triathletes and beginning racers have at least one thing in common and that is that they crash too often. My inclination is that a lot of this is related to tension and anxiety. Less experienced racers are often stiff with fear and it prevents them from being supple and adaptable in dangerous situations.
This subconscious tensing is the same in the process of being proficient at many skills, including mountain biking technical terrain and also balance sports like snowboarding, skiing, and skating. The completely counterintuitive thing to do when facing a challenging run in skiing is to relax, whereas most novices tighten up.
Learning to recognize the subtle clues that indicate an impending crash is a great skill for any cyclist. It teaches you to avoid those situations whenever possible or to identify one when it is about to happen so you can take evasive maneuvers.
The first thing I usually notice about the triathletes in one of these draft legal races, or the racers at a local 4/5 criterium, is how stiff they all are. Everything looks rigid. Their arms are locked, their shoulders are hunched and they are gritting their teeth. Their position on the bike does not look comfortable and they appear to be fighting their bike instead of flowing with it.
This tension is extremely detrimental to racing. First it is dangerous. When a rider is that stiff they are more likely to lock up in an accident rather than swerve to avoid it. Even for ironman triathletes where crashing is not a major concern, all that tension can damage their performance simply because so much energy is being wasted. Muscles that should be relaxed and loose are under constant tension, burning up precious calories that should be going towards propelling the rider towards the finish line.
Therefore, the first thing I usually do with a new triathlete client is take them through a skills clinic. We work on cornering, pedal stroke, contact with other riders, track stands and other confidence building exercises. The techniques learned in the clinic are not nearly as important as the confidence boost that the rider gets from going out of their comfort zone to discover they can handle their bikes better than they realized.
Most road cyclists I know figure they don’t need to work on skills or that it is a waste of their limited training time. One way to look at it is that even if you devote all your free time to the very best training program in existence, it’s not going to help you when you are sitting on your butt on the pavement or off the back because you fell behind one too many times on the corners of a technical crit.
Riding at the Front
Draft legal triathlon is an odd type of bike race because there is no benefit to coming in first or second or third or even riding faster than a conversational pace while buried in the middle of the pack. This is because the effort it takes to gain even a few seconds on the pack far outweighs the benefit. Yet riders constantly do it.
Beginning road cyclists often do the same thing. They ride at the front, driving the pace even though they are not chasing anyone down and they are not causing damage behind them. It’s often an ego thing. As with triathletes, they sometimes have “teammates” in the race but they seem to get in each other’s way more than help each other, accidentally (or purposely) chasing the other down or driving the pace at a moment when their teammate needs a few seconds of recovery.
What racing is about, any kind of racing, is the conservation and careful monitoring of energy expenditure. The goal is to never do a lick of work that isn’t going to directly improve your advantage over your competitors. In draft legal triathlon, the only concern of each rider should be the conservation of energy. With every turn of the pedals at the front you are improving the advantage that your tucked in opponents have over you.
The same is true in a Cat 5 criterium when a rider is killing himself at the front while the rest of the pack sits in comfortably. What is the point? If you are feeling strong, then at the right moment you should try to break away from the pack, not ride with them sitting comfortably on your wheel. However, since 99% of Cat 4 and Cat 5 crits end in a pack sprint and the triathlon breakaway rarely goes into he run with a significant advantage over the pack, the smarter move is always to sit in, stay rested and save your energy for when it really matters. In road cycling it’s the sprint. In draft legal triathlon it’s the run.
Mind you, this isn’t a general excuse to race negatively, as in chasing down every breakaway that goes up the road. Race aggressively and bridge up to a break solo or in a small group, rather than towing up the entire pack. If the gap becomes too large to bridge solo, then let the others in the pack do the chasing, then get ready to counterattack when the chase is almost done. That type of racing still rarely works in most lower category racing, but it builds a lot more fitness and can teach you a lot more about racing dynamics.
Over the years, I’ve seen various triathlete training programs and they are often very one-dimensional. They work on threshold level training almost exclusively and don’t do enough higher intensity work like Max Effort sprints or VO2 max intervals. I suppose the theory is that since the cycling leg is basically a time trial then it is most beneficial to train at time trial pace.
Road racers make this mistake as well. They do all their training at a moderately high intensity. They don’t hit the real high notes that are necessary for top end fitness because they are never properly rested because they don’t allow themselves to recover properly.
Just because triathletes don’t race at VO2 max doesn’t mean it is not enormously helpful to train there. Not only would short high intensity intervals between one and three minutes help raise their threshold power and endurance, but it also would help them recover when they accidentally go above their threshold level during a race.
Road cyclists who train hard all the time wonder why they don’t have the top end fitness to do well in the race. It is because their intensity isn’t hard enough and their recovery isn’t easy enough.
There is also the issue of leg speed, my favorite topic as of late. The triathletes that I have coached have never even heard of high spin training or no load revving. This is when you put it in a very easy gear and hold a cadence of 120 or above with very little resistance. I guess the theory is that triathlon is a slow twitch sport and you only need leg speed if you are a sprinter or a criterium racer.
But being able to pedal quickly is the absolute essence of cycling. Everything you do in your training should be with the ultimate purpose of being able to turn your pedals faster than your competitor. Whether you are on the track, in a criterium or in a time trial or triathlon that is what this sport is about. The rider who can pedal the fastest, is the fastest. Leg speed is everything, yet most riders don’t even spend 10 minutes a week working on it.
I guess the point of all this is that while it is easy to point out someone else’s mistakes, it’s not as easy to recognize those same faults in yourself. So remember, continue to watch and learn from great bike racers and the great things they do, but don’t forget to look at yourself to see and correct your own mistakes.
Josh is the owner and manager of the Wonderful Pistachios Professional Cycling Team. Josh is also USCF Certified coach. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com. Also, follow Josh on Twitter for training tips and team updates. This is a great way to find out when we will be coming to your town so you can hit us up for some free pistachios. Mention PezCycling News when you see us and we’ll even crack them for you!